October 1, 2020
Out of the Blue - New Zealand, 2006
It is an unremarkable morning – the sun rises, casting its stunningly beautiful dawn glow over the South Pacific waters slowly making their way to the shores of Aramoana, New Zealand. Other than an early-riser who is already combing the beach with a metal detector, the streets are vacant. Slowly the residents begin to stir. There’s an elderly couple on a walk, a woman taking out the trash, a flag being patriotically raised. Soon a father and his two children gleefully trek down to the beach for some pre-school day fun. In a lighthearted moment, an elderly man is about to pour himself a cup of coffee when he notices a partially-filled hip flask to his right. Guess which one he chooses. There’s an everyday feel to these scenes, a sense of timelessness. The sequence recurs later in the film – there’s the sunrise, the almost completely vacant streets – but the innocence has vanished, perhaps permanently.
We meet several of the residents. There’s a couple trying to find a way to tell the woman’s three daughters that she and her boyfriend plan to start living together. There’s a man in his forties who lives with his mother and his dog - they get along surprisingly well. The town’s sheriff is Sergeant Stu Guthrie (William Kircher), and a quick look at the white board in his office reveals how little there is for him to do that day. And then there’s David Gray. The date is November 13, 1990, and over the next twenty-four hours, Gray will be responsible for thirteen murders and countless shattered lives.
As portrayed in Out of the Blue, exquisitely directed by Robert Sarkies, Gray (eerily played by Matthew Sunderland) is both a loner and an eccentric. He’s the kind of person whom young kids unwittingly snicker at and adults simply grow accustomed to dealing with on a daily basis. He travels around on a bicycle, moving at a pace often associated with that of a child still unsure of his ability to keep balance. The contents of his refrigerator are protected by barded wired, and he smokes incessantly, even in places where it is a finable offense. And he has a keen interest in guns.
The film wisely does not delve into the origins of this fascination, and it does not seek to provide an explanation for his actions. Sure, we witness him get visibly frustrated at a bank teller when he is charged two dollars to cash a check, an incident that undoubtedly adds to his growing persecution complex, but to call it the straw that broke the camel’s back does not seem accurate. Soon Gray returns home, glances at an article in a local gun magazine, and goes back to creating distance between him and his neighbors. Just before his rampage starts, he gets into an argument with a neighbor after Gray accused three sisters of getting too close to his property. It is the kind of thing that likely happens regularly – something makes Gray uncomfortable, he overreacts, a brief verbal confrontation ensues, the two sides eventually part without much of a resolution. Just “Stay away.” “Leave my kids alone.” Points made. Move on. For some reason, though, this time is different.
Were this a Hollywood movie, the response would be swift and merciless. Some fearless protagonist would swoop in and run toward the gunfire, often with a drink in his hand and a look of confident determination on his face. It’s pure fantasy, of course, – enjoyable, but fantasy nonetheless. Out of the Blue presents us with a more realistic picture. Sure, Sheriff Guthrie rushes to the scene of the crime, yet his fear is palpable. His voice shakes, and his movements are frantic. The killer could be anywhere. Also, in most Hollywood movies, when the hero has a shot, he takes it. Here, a cop named Nick Harvey (exceptionally played by Karl Urban) can’t bring himself to pull the trigger, not even on a man he knows had killed and will likely kill again. In another scene, a young mother pleads for help after being wounded from several gunshots. Hollywood would have the hero dart in and pull her out. Here, she remains where she is, the threat being too great to attempt a rescue.
So many moments in the film resonate. In one scene, an elderly woman who needs crutches to walk crawls out of harm’s way to call for help, only to return to provide emotional support for a wounded stranger. Another woman clutches her newborn baby tightly, doing all she can to keep the baby calm and silent. A police officer holding a wounded child quietly breaks down, while his partner keeps another child conscious by reminiscing about the fun she had at a party they both attended. Then there’s the look on one of the officer’s faces when he realizes that he knows a gunshot victim and can do nothing to help her, and the anguished expression of a mother who realizes that she is powerless to save two of her children. Of Gray’s victims, five of them were under twelve.
of the Blue is truly heartbreaking, its violence
senseless. We understand many of these characters; they are us – regular people
leading ordinary lives. According to the 2001 census, Aramoana had 261
permanent residents; in other words, it is the kind of place where everyone
knows everyone else and where the loss of one is likely to be felt by the many.
I grew up in Nevada City, a small town in northern California, and there was a
sense of security that was not found in big cities. Few people locked their
door; children freely went out to explore without parental supervision. Safety
usually entered parents’ minds only when a child was late coming home. That
changed on January 10, 2001, when a 40-year old man killed three people and
wounded two others. I doubt it has been the same place since. How could it? (on